BEST XMAS BOOKS: NON-FICTION

Meredith Jaffe

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
– Nelson Mandela, July 1918—December 2013

It’s no accident that publishers release so many non-fiction titles in time for Christmas. They can be the perfect gift for that hard to buy for relative, especially if one is trying to steer clear of socks, hankies and soap-on-a-rope.

These Twelve Non-Fiction titles for Christmas is an eclectic list that might just contain a book that was off your present-buying radar.

The Social Butterfly

peas-&-queuesIt is timely that as we are well in the throes of the festive season with parties and gatherings involving potentially lethal juggling of drinks and finger food, house guests and meals where we are crammed around the dining table cheek by jowl that Sandi Toksvig should come to our rescue with Peas & Queues.

Fans of the television program QI will need no introduction to the broadcaster and columnist where she is known to toss out brilliant bon mots in her impeccable English. Her witty and relaxed style translates perfectly as she throws herself on the etiquette grenade that is the minefield of modern manners.

Of course, it is highly unlikely to be the gift to give a person whose manners are irredeemable but if, like me, you get tired of the endless questioning of why you cannot talk with your mouth full, why it is good manners to clean up after yourself and terrible manners to conduct a telephone/ twitter/ email conversation whilst you have guests, then perhaps this is the book for you or those you desperately wish to improve.

Covering all the usual social situations from christenings to funerals, Toksvig delves into history to explain the why of the habits we still readily retain and the evolution of those that struggle to remain relevant. Whether you are after some tips or not, this is a charming and clever read.

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Memoir

moving-among-strangersGabrielle Carey has always known that there is a family connection between Western Australian author Randolph Stow and her mother from sometime in their childhood. As her mother Joan lies dying, Gabrielle Carey feels compelled to write a letter to Stow informing him of her mother’s serious illness. His response contains tantalising details from her parent’s past that Carey had not previously known and it ignites a desire in Carey to undertake a literary pilgrimage to discover Stow’s place in her family’s history and the stories her secretive mother never revealed.

In the process of uncovering the past, Carey travels from the east to the west coast and connects with her extended family, the Fergusons, who are the family behind the wine label Houghtons. In healing her grieving heart, Carey finds there is a place for her in the broader family, a deeper understanding of her parents’ lives and a way to incorporate it all into her own identity.

Moving Among Strangers is a tender, thoughtful and a wonderful confluence between a personal journey after loss and an exploration of the life one of this country’s great writers. It is wonderful that finding her own roots was as much a mechanism for personal resolution as it became for tracing the life of Randolph Stow.

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The Sports Fan

life-is-worth-swimmingSports books written by the person themselves can be a bit hit and miss. For obvious reasons, what makes someone a great cricketer or golfer does not necessarily make them an articulate communicator. Murray Rose is different. Before he was even diagnosed with the leukaemia that would take his life in April 2012, he began to collate his random notes and journals with the idea of putting his experiences into a book. In the preface of Life is Worth Swimming, Rose says that his struggle was to find a hook that would make his story interesting to others, admitting that ‘the art of swimming has a narrow focus.’

This is a somewhat modest view from a man who won multiple gold medals at two Olympics and is often called “the greatest swimmer of all time.” Perhaps what makes his autobiography so outstanding is that the man himself was as complex as he was deep. Rose was a committed vegetarian, embraced philosophy as a way of finding meaning in his life and embraced humour as ‘the great leveller’.

Apart from Murray Rose’s life in words is the equally wonderful collection of photos throughout the book. As if being an Olympic Champion were not enough, Rose had pin-up boy good looks and it is fascinating to see how they were used to promote him and the sport. Of course this is a sports book, but it also is a wonderful snapshot of Australian life in the 50s and 60s.

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For the Fabulous Women in Your Life

50-bookFigures show that there are close to 1 million women in Australia aged between 50 and 55—right now around 3,000 women are turning 50 every week. So often the discussion is about the invisibility of women as they age, the antidote is clearly to prove otherwise. The 50 Book is such an amazing collection of women’s wisdom that would be so much less if it were not for the intimate portraits by author and photographer Jennifer Blau.

The secret to why this book avoids cliché is because the stories come from everyday women who each contribute on a topic close to their hearts—passion, caring, self-respect, health and liberation—fifty different aspects of what it means to be a woman. It’s all about observing what a well-lived life looks like, how we get there and making sure we appreciate what we have, and what we are yet, to achieve.

The book is crammed with so many quotes from so many amazing women. Here’s one of my favourites from the singer Cher who says, “Some guy said to me: ‘Don’t you think you’re a bit too old to sing rock n’ roll?’ I said: ‘You’d better check with Mick Jagger.” Hear. Hear.

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The Space Nut

an-astronnauts's-guide-to-lifeAt the age of 9, Chris Hadfield went to the next door neighbour’s house to watch the Moon Landing. When he went outside and saw the bright orb of the moon hanging in the sky, he realised that the moon was now a place people could visit. Chris Hadfield decided then and there that he was going to be an astronaut.

At the end of his career, with many missions under his belt, almost everyone knows who Chris Hadfield is because of his son Evan. Evan wanted his dad to make the first music video in space and the song he chose was David Bowie’s Space Oddity. The exercise was designed to “corner the market on wonder” hoping to capture the public imagination and drive them to see the Canadian Space Association’s educational videos. The video went viral and received over ten million hits in its first 3 days online. But that’s not really all this book is about.

Chris Hadfield trained for decades to be an astronaut and along the way collected success and wisdom that became intrinsic to his unusual personal philosophy that only someone who has lived an extraordinary life could possibly have developed. With chapter headings such as The Power of Negative Thinking and Sweat the Small Stuff, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth blends memoir and a career of seeing the earth from on high into an entertaining, awe-inspiring and inspirational book. It made me wonder what on earth I’ve been doing with my life.

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The Fashionista

colette-dinniganCollette Dinnigan has to be one of the most iconic Australian fashion designers who has the fortune to see her clothes worn by royalty, celebrities and adored by everyone else.

Obsessive Creative is as much about her ethos and design principles as her amazing childhood where her father sailed the family from South Africa, via Australia to New Zealand where they settled. The images, both hand drawn and photographed, are exquisite and Dinnigan writes passionately on her life and her creative process.

This is a very precious gift for lovers of excellent design but also an inspirational tale of how to get where you want to be and do it with style.

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The Foodie

little-french-kitchenIf you missed Rachel Khoo’s TV series The Little Paris Kitchen, you missed a rare treat. Cooking in her tiny Parisienne apartment with 2 gas rings and a mini oven, this English Francophile runs the smallest restaurant in Paris. Now she has travelled the length and breadth of France from Brittany to Provence and put together a collection of recipes that showcase local produce and add a twist to old favourites in a new book My Little French Kitchen.

Her take on Beer-Doused Ham Hock struck a chord in this household since it involved beer, pork and lentils. There is the ever so simple and delicious recipe for Nougat Mousse that doubles as a semi freddo. From Nice there is Cannelloni Niçoise-Style that will become a Meat Free Monday standby. And given that Rachel is a French–trained pastry chef, it goes without saying that her cakes, biscuits, pastries and desserts are luscious. Beautifully photographed and presented, this is a cookbook that marries practicality with panache.

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The Trendsetter

jezebelAn encyclopaedia of women’s business is a daunting thing but not under the control of the team from Jezebel. Containing over 1,000 entries on everything from abortions to zygotes, The Book of Jezebel is a guide to popular culture—as seen by women. A random page selection landed me at the letter F where we had Larry Flynt, Jane Fonda, Betty Ford, Eileen Ford, Tom Ford, foreplay, foreskin, Forever 21, Jodie Foster, Four Weddings and a Funeral and last but by no means least, Anne Frank. So call it eclectic then but there is a serious message to women and if you have young women in the house this might be a great book to reflect a) the right messages, and b) that you are a pretty hip and finger-on-the-pulse kind of person to have in their lives. It’s a fine line though so be careful!

The website Jezebel has over 5 million followers worldwide and has won numerous awards and accolades including Forbes magazine calling it one of the top 100 websites for women. To follow the advice from the editor Anna Holmes, “Laugh with it…or at it. Give copies as gifts. React to it…Most importantly: Enjoy it.” And it certainly is very enjoyable.

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The Armchair Traveller

what-westerners-have-for-breakfastJohn McBeath and his partner Sue had always promised themselves that when the time was right they would go live in India. The plan was to set up a pensione somewhere along the Goan coast where Europeans could experience Indian history and culture whilst still enjoying Western comforts. It seemed idyllic as Goa offers long beaches of white sands, the area is famous for its fresh seafood, influences by the Portuguese and the lifestyle is cheap and laidback.

This freelance writer, jazz aficionado and joyous traveler has written a humorous and colourful account of the five years he and his partner spent pursuing their dream. What Westerners Have for Breakfast has all the necessary ingredients for a chill-out summer read—a vicarious travel adventure, a sea and tree change—and all from the comfort of your own particular patch of summer paradise.

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The History Buff

the-forgotten-rebels-of-eurekaClare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka revisits the known history of the Victorian goldrush and the events leading up to the Eureka Stockade and calls into question why this period of Australian history has been written as if the Victorian town of Ballarat was populated only by men wishing to make their fortunes.

This meticulously researched and engrossing book, brings alive other accounts of a period in Australian history which saw the population of the new state of Victoria swell from 77,000 people in 1851 to 540,000 by 1861—fuelled by the mad dash to riches in what was called the Australian El Dorado. The world flocked to the colony and that world included women. Publicans, wives, mothers and actresses, Wright weaves their tales together to create a new picture of a vibrant, hopeful community that was shattered on the fateful day in 1854.

Through the eyewitness account of Charles Evans, a twenty six year old printer from Shropshire England, we learn that one woman was ‘mercilessly butchered by a mounted troop while she was pleading for the life of her husband.’ Her death remained unreported and officially unrecognized and it is through these kinds of stories that Wright brings together an altogether more rounded view, a richer and more diverse view, of life on the goldfields. If Ballarat is the ‘birthplace of Australian democracy’, Wright asks, ‘who were the midwives to that precious delivery?

One for Eurekaphiles, the Eurekaphobes and for all lovers of Australian history.

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The Avid Puzzler

cluetopiaIn celebration of the 100th birthday of the crossword, Australia’s favourite puzzler David Astle has written a wonderful quirky history of that newspaper stalwart, Cluetopia. A self-confessed folly, Cluetopia has all the trademark Astle wit and vast etymological knowledge.

From 1913 when Arthur Wynne had a gap to fill in the Sunday edition of the New York World, and put in a kite shaped word puzzle introducing a new concept—the black square, Astle revisits the major milestones in the creation of the modern crossword.

Did you know that the word face-lifting came into being in 1922, cleavage in 1946 or Exocet in 1970 or in the year of my birth, kaftan? The cryptic crossword had its genesis in 1926 in the hands of the literary critic and poet Edward Powys Mather who devised crosswords under the pseudonym Torquemada, a particularly nasty priest during the Spanish Inquisition. Or the story behind the invention of the Colossus, the biggest crossword in Australia?

Having emailed every media storehouse and library across the globe, what results is a wonderful collection of crossword tales, hidden geniuses, marriage proposals and death notices. Cluetopia might bring a puzzler’s joy but as a history of human nature it is a delightful and amusing read.

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The Green Thumb

edible-garden-designIn the current environment where food security is often front page news, accepting the premise that in order to feed ourselves we must grow food locally and divest ourselves of the dependence on others is core. “Others” can be other countries but it can also be other people.

Jamie Durie’s Edible Garden Design takes this concept and shows how to integrate edible plants into garden design in a very hands-on way but also mindful of creating an aesthetic outcome. Travelling the world, Durie has collected the best ideas and uses photos and graphics to explain how to make it work. Contributions come from famous veggie gardeners such as Jamie Oliver and Stephanie Alexander, community garden experts and everyday passionate gardeners. There are ideas for everyone—even if you think it is impossible to grown anything at your place.

Durie’s approach is that gardening is good for your mind, body and soul and his passion is infectious. A great book to give someone who is not quite sure where to start or wants to take their little patch and grow it.

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YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE…

The 12 Books of Christmas

Jackie French: The Power of Books

Goodbye to One of the Greats

The Biggest Books of the Year

It’s Never Too Late To Reinvent Yourself

 

 

 src=*Meredith Jaffé is a writer, avid reader and The Hoopla’s books editor. Her reviews have been featured in the NSW Writers’ Centre 366 Days of Writing and in 2013 she was a member of the expert panel that selects the longlist for the Australian Book Industry Awards. When she is avoiding work, she cooks, plays Scrabble online or occasionally updates her Facebook page.

 

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